HOMILY FOR THE 24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (September 13, 2020)
Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The biblical author wrote that early in the 2nd century B.C., but his observations seem as pertinent today as then, his conclusions as true today as then. All of us, individually and collectively, surely have had our share of experience with wrath and anger, and have certainly seen their consequences. Being sinners, as we all are, we may also, in our own lives and in our own behavior, also have hugged wrath and anger all too tightly, to our own detriment and that of the world.
Wrath and anger certainly seem to be the primary descriptors of our public life as a nation, as we increasingly sort ourselves out into separate and mutually despising geographical and cultural communities, while the world’s seemingly intractable social and political problems and conflicts continue to challenge us. The scriptures we just heard do not directly address those challenges. They do, however, say something important about who God is, what kind of relationship God has chosen to have with us, and what kind of people we are being called by God to become through the personal and social choices we make.
The Gospel today focuses our attention squarely on forgiveness, which Alan Wolfe famously referred to as “the odd man out among the virtues.” The forgiveness of which Jesus speaks so insistently is not another word for being nice, for going along so we can all get along. Nor is it what our therapeutically oriented society would have us focus on – letting go of hurts and resentments, for our own good, to get on with life. That may be good advice. It may make life less stressful, which, to be sure, is all to the good. But the forgiveness of which Jesus speaks is something significantly more than that.
Peter’s question – Lord, if my brothers sins against me how often must I forgive? – is a very humanly framed question. It is not about forgiveness, as such, but about me. What is the minimum I must do to qualify as a good person? Jesus answers with a parable about God – about what God is like, how God acts, and what God’s actions mean for us, and what conclusions we need to draw from that for our own actions.
The debtor in the parable stands for each of us. His absurd attempt to make a deal and his ridiculous promise to pay his debt in full are absurd and ridiculous because they are so obviously impossible to fulfill and only show how hopeless the situation actually is. God obviously understands this. So he forgives the loan.
Sadly, however, the debtor servant seems to believe he somehow struck a deal, which is what humans do whenever they think they have somehow placated God on their own. This is not unlike the familiar arrogance of those who loudly shout about how they have earned their advantages all on their own, who think that they have pulled themselves up the ladder of life, whereas in reality they have grasped the hands of others and walked the path others have paved for them.
The parable tells us that God does not make deals. Indeed he disdains deals and deplores deal-makers. Since God does not want our sins to be a source of hostility between us, he reconciles us on his own. He forgives our sins, cancels our hopelessly unpayable debt, without any deals or deal-making. Forgiveness is free. And, moreover, it is freeing. It makes us free – free from a slave’s fearful machinations for an altogether new kind of relationship with one another. So now we too can forgive – and indeed have to forgive, just as God forgives us.
Sadly, the servant who was forgiven the large debt thought that it was his own cleverness that had hoodwinked the king. So he failed to experience the freeing effects of forgiveness in his own life – something that showed right away in his treatment of his fellow servant.
Being angry, remaining resentful, holding grudges, seeking revenge – all that is the most natural thing in the world. It is our alternative experience of something different – the new life we have received through God’s forgiveness – that makes it possible for us, as people who are conscious of having been first forgiven ourselves, to become agents of God’s reconciliation in our world.
And so, assembled here today (and every Sunday), we may be burdened by the weight of our debt and the fragility of the social bonds on which we depend for our survival in a hate-filled world. But, gathered together as one, as members of the Body of Christ, we feel the forgiving power that frees us for something so new and so different.
HOMILY FOR THE 23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (September 6, 2020)
An article in last week’s NY Times Magazine addressed the increasingly common experience of those who find themselves at odds or in conflict with family or friends because of political disagreements about the direction of our country and the moral seriousness with which such disagreements are increasingly invested. As a nation are more divided and conflicted now than at any time in our history at least since our own Civil War. Meanwhile we are separating ourselves from one another geographically and in virtually every other way, including our sources of news and information. Political parties used to disagree about policies, which would then be discussed, debated, and eventually even resolved by negotiation and compromise. Now, however, our ideological disagreements are more like mascots for a nation of competing teams whose main concern is just to hate and despise each other. So thoroughly divided are we that it has been observed that a person’s vote can reliably increasingly indicate “his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” [Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, 2018]
As the scriptures we just heard read to us this Sunday suggest, these are not entirely new problems. Conflict has always been a part of the human condition – at least since Cain killed Abel. But, thanks to our globalized consciousness and our modern media, we are increasingly conscious of living in a world torn apart by constant conflict. We are much more aware than perhaps people used to be of all the big macro-level conflicts that threaten the world’s security and stability. International, intra-national, and tribal disputes, along with social and political protests and the injustices that spark them in the first place dominate the headlines in our own country and around the world. And, in addition, there are, of course, all the ordinary conflicts we have always known about and had had to reckon with in our personal lives – the disputes that divide families, break-up marriages, terminate friendships, and constantly wreak havoc on communities both large and small.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus famously outlines a procedure for his disciples to deal with conflicts that occur within the community of the Church. Obsessed as we are in our society with ourselves and our so-called individual rights, typically what gets emphasized is settling the score and achieving something called “justice.” Of course, justice is important. We have only to look around our country today to see where the lack of justice has led us. The process Jesus outlines, however, is a process aimed at reconciliation. It reminds me of the process in canon law for dealing with problems in religious communities. A misbehaving member is warned and given a chance to change several times before the process ends in expulsion, because the goal is not expulsion but rather the person’s reconciliation with the community.
There is a wonderful example of that in Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century England, where Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey). In the final volume, Cadfael leaves his monastery on a personal mission of his own. But, at the end of the story, he returns and kneels before his Abbot, who responds simply: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”
Whatever we are or do – whether as an individual or as a community – the goal, as Cadfael’s Abbot obviously understood, must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, here and now and forever in God’s kingdom.
Unfortunately, on this earth at least, not all problems are solvable, as we know all too well. We’re all heard the so-called “Serenity Prayer” – God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. In human terms, some problems just can’t be satisfactorily solved; some conflicts just can’t be peacefully reconciled; and it is an important part of practical human and political wisdom to know which is which and how best to deal with them.
Likewise, even in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, it is recognized that reconciliation may not always be possible. And so, in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, it is only after multiple efforts – individually, with small group, and finally with the whole community – that the effort is ended.
Even then, however, the story doesn’t quite end there. Jesus says: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Now, in the ordinary world, the meaning of that would have been perfectly clear. As much as possible, devout, observant Jews avoided contact with such people, and they certainly would not admit them to their homes or eat and drink with them.
Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, there is, – coming from him – a certain nuance to that, because, of course, we are all aware of how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may be there because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided North African Church of the 4th century, St. Augustine (354-430), said of the heretical and schismatic Christians he opposed so vigorously: “My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers” [Commentary on Psalm 32 (33)]. So it is hardly surprising that the Church has always recognized reconciling wanderers back to the mainstream of the Church as one of the Church’s constant concerns.
The apostles’ power to bind and to loose includes both the authority to separate offenders from the community and also to readmit them. When Saint Paul addressed this issue, he reminded the Christian community in Corinth, which had taken disciplinary action against an offender, that the offender’s eventual readmission remained the goal of the process [2 Corinthians 2:5-8].
As Pope Francis has reminded us, “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time” [EG 24].
So, again, whatever we are or do – as an individual, as a family, as a political or civic community, as a parish, as a Church – the goal (not always achievable, perhaps, but our goal nonetheless) must always be to bring us all back together.
HOMILY FOR THE 22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 30, 2020)
Sometime in the summer of 1975, I was having coffee with a classmate and looking at the newspaper. One of us noticed that the advertised “sermon topic” at a major NY synagogue that weekend was “The Theology of Jaws,” referring, of course, to Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster, then showing in all the major theaters. My friend asked whether the lines to get in the synagogue would be as long as those to get into the theaters! This year Jaws has enjoyed a certain revival because of the pandemic, with the obvious parallel between present-day public figures and the character of the person in public office, the Mayor, who fails to take proper precautions and downplays the danger to the public. In the film it is the police chief, who keeps trying to alert people to the danger and persuade the mayor to act accordingly.
The prophetic truth-teller, who is ignored or even persecuted, is a familiar image. That was the role of Jeremiah, whose lament we just listened to in our first reading. Violence and outrage is my message, he said. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised that it got him derision and reproach all the day.
The reference to Jeremiah, reminds me of a conference I attended as a grad student sometime in the mid-1970s – again right about the time of the movie Jaws. At question time, someone challenged one of the speakers whether he was sounding a bit too Jeremiah-like. The speaker responded with the reminder that, well, Jeremiah wasn’t just talking to hear his own voice, and that the problem he was warning about was real. Jeremiah wasn’t just talking to hear his own voice, but out of the greatest sense of urgency – like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones, he said. I grow weary holding it in.
Jeremiah stood out because sadly there were also false prophets in ancient Israel, who supported the rulers regardless, with disastrous long-term consequences. They remind me of Chesterton’s famous warning: “When someone concludes that any stick is good enough to beat his foe with—that is when he picks up a boomerang.”
We are now nine weeks away from a General Election – actually less than that for those of us who will be voting early or by mail. What would Jeremiah say?
The biblical view of the world, which inspired Jeremiah and other prophetic truth-tellers, highlights the essential solidarity of the human race. It reminds us, for example, how in the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of all, an original gift to all, which no private claim can do away with. Thus, Pope Francis, when he spoke to Congress five years ago, described “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good” as “the chief aim of all politics.” Such solidarity is at the heart of a Catholic conception of life. It means more than just some vague feeling of caring about other people. “It is,” as Saint John Paul II said, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” [Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38.]
Election year inevitably focuses our attention on Washington. But we need not look so far to find challenges to solidarity and to our commitment to the common good. The pandemic we have been living through this year has certainly done that. It has both tested our sense of solidarity and, sadly, illustrated how fragile is our commitment to the common good. Medical science suggests, for example, that, if everyone wore a mask all the time, the spread of infection would be radically reduced, and we would be able to resume many of the normal activities this pandemic has so brutally interrupted. And yet how many people resist doing something so simple as wearing a mask all the time?
As Pope Francis has reminded us, “we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family.”[Message for 49th World Day of Prayer for Peace, January 1, 2016]
The example of Peter in today’s Gospel illustrates how easy it is to get it all wrong. The apostles, after all, were Jesus’s closest disciples, those he had handpicked to be his Church’s first bishops; but, when it came to understanding what was most important for Jesus, they got it wrong – a warning for all of us, how easy it is to think not as God does.
HOMILY FOR THE 21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 23, 2020)
This month we have witnessed the new pandemic version of a venerable American institution, the presidential nominating convention. Like some of you, I am actually old enough to remember the good old days of contested conventions which actually picked their party’s candidates. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for a while. But, whatever form the conventions take, their arrival is another sign that this election season is entering its decisive phase. And it reminds us that every society, secular or religious, requires leadership; and the way a society’s leaders, secular or religious, are chosen will always say a lot about the society itself.
Today’s Gospel recalls Jesus’ choice of Simon Peter to lead the Church that the Risen Christ would leave behind. Nowadays, you can find all sorts of wonderful things to watch on YouTube, like old newsreels of political conventions and campaigns. And, if so inclined, you can also find some 25 Italian videos of the coronation of Peter’s successor Pope John XXIII in 1958. Several times during that lengthy ceremony, the Sistine Choir chants Jesus’ words which we just heard in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”). In videos 13 and 14, you can watch and hear that same Gospel account chanted – twice in fact – first in Latin and then in Greek. I guess that’s what called making a point!
Today’s familiar Gospel takes us back in time – from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the institution that is the modern papacy to the region of Caesarea Philippi and to that first Pope, Peter himself. What the Romans at that time called Caesarea Philippi was about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in territory then ruled by King Herod’s son Philip. Now known as “Banias,” it was then the site of pagan temple to the god Pan. Israel’s border was not then the war zone that it is now, and its borders were not patrolled and fortified the way they are now, but it was still a border with its own symbolic spiritual significance.
It was to that somewhat foreign, pagan place that Jesus took his disciples, and it was in that somewhat foreign, pagan place that he challenged them to answer what would become the basic Christian question: Who do you say that Jesus is? As their future leader, Peter answered on behalf of the disciples – on behalf of the entire Church: You are the Christ [the Messiah, the Anointed One], the Son of the living God. Not only does Peter proclaim that Jesus is Israel’s hoped-for Messiah, but – in that site sacred to the son of Zeus – he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the living (that is, the one and only true) God.
Then as now, Peter speaks for the Church – not just for his fellow apostles, but for all of us. In response, Jesus assures us that Peter’s profession of faith is not some merely human opinion, one option among many in the global religious marketplace, but a revelation from God – one which Peter himself, at that stage, still only poorly understood. From such a modest beginning in such an oddly out-of-the-way place, Peter’s profession of who Jesus is, has been the center of the Church’s proclamation – as Peter’s role has since likewise remained central to the Church’s identity and mission.
Fast forward to the baroque basilica built above Peter’s tomb, where the current occupant of Peter’s office continues to speak – on behalf of the Church for the sake of the whole world. As Peter’s Successor, the Pope serves as the Church’s visible source of the unity across space and time. Across space (as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer), one Church has been brought together “from every people, tongue, and nation,” so that “in a world torn by strife,” God’s people “may shine forth,” as a universal Church, “a prophetic sign of unity and concord.” That unity across space is illustrated not only when pilgrims from all over the world assemble in Saint Peter’s Square for the papal blessing urbi et orbi, “to the city and the world,” but also more recently when modern, pre-pandemic popes have visited local churches around the world. Even more recently, that visible unity across space was reflected in the image of the Pope alone leading prayer in Saint Peter’s Square, while the rest of us, hiding in our homes, watch from a safe distance via TV or internet.
Since then, the Pope has led the Church in praying that Christians would respond to the reduced restrictions with “prudence and obedience.”
This unity across space is uniquely possible because of the Church’s unity across time – our unity with Peter in his profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of the living God, whose own victory over death has definitively guaranteed that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church. Our unity across time in professing the ancient apostolic faith of Peter, makes possible our present unity across space as Christ’s Church in divided and threatened world, which in turn fosters – for both the Church and the world – our future hope for both space and time in the kingdom of heaven.
It is well known that, especially in certain segments of the American Catholic Church in what for lack of a better term we might call the political and religious right, criticism of the Pope (particularly of the current Pope) has become quite common – and in a way that goes well beyond ordinary questions or disagreements about particular policies, the sorts of ordinary questions or disagreements that always occur in any living institution. Recently the retired patriarch of Venice and Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Cardinal Scola, spoke out about this contemporary problem, which is increasingly so typical of our particularly polarized politics.
“It is not by affinity of temperament, of culture, of sensibility, or for friendship, or because one shares or does not share his affirmations that one acknowledges the meaning of the pope in the church,” Cardinal Scola has reminded us. It is rather that the Pope “is the ultimate, radical, and formal guarantee … of the unity of the Church.”
Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 23, 2020.
HOMILY FOR THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BVM (August 15, 2020)
In this year of big anniversaries – the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the dogmatic definition of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius XII in the Jubilee Year 1950. If you go on YouTube, you can find an Italian newsreel video from that year that shows some of the ceremony. It begins the night before with the procession of the image of Maria, Salus Populi Romani (Mary, Protector of the Roman People), from the church of Ara Coeli, through the ancient Camidoglio, across town to Saint Peter’s Basilica – the first such procession with that ancient image since 1854. Normally that image resides in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, which was where Isaac Hecker went to venerate it after his expulsion from the Redemptorists in 1857 and where Pope Francis regularly venerates it before and after his journeys. Of course, now there are no more journeys. Imprisoned like the rest of us by this pandemic, the Pope has nonetheless continued to venerate that famous image and invites us to do so too. His pandemic prayer, which appears at the end of my daily email messages is addressed to Mary, Health of the Sick and Protector of the Roman People.
With Pope Francis, in this desperate time we too turn to Mary, whose body-and-soul exaltation in the kingdom of heaven we celebrate today. Like the mother being attacked by the dragon in the book of Revelation, we too seem surrounded on all sides by dangers of all sorts. This pandemic itself has highlighted so many social problems and inequalities that blight American society. Alongside the terrible tragedy of widespread sickness and death, we’re witnessing economic collapse, seemingly stable societies unravelling, and once-trusted institutions breaking down. The Assumption reminds us that God has already acted on our behalf by raising Jesus from the dead and given us all an alternative future. In Mary, Christ’s resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. Where she is, there we hope to be.
HOMILY FOR THE 19th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 9, 2020)
If there were no pandemic, this would be vacation season for many. This year, sensible people stay home and don’t try to go anywhere. But, in other years, this would have been the season to head for the water, which, where I come from, mainly means the ocean. Yet, while frolicking on or in the water has always had a broad appeal, there has also always been a certain dimension of danger associated with water. Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly understood that. and I am sure they took their local waterway very seriously indeed. The great lake we call the Sea of Galilee was, after all, where the disciples had, until very recently, been making their living as fishermen; and it was still, the Gospels seem to suggest, serving as their main base of operations. And, like anyone who has ever been caught in a boat in a storm, they knew how very suddenly things can change and suddenly go very wrong on the water; and they certainly also knew how limited was the security that their seafaring skills could guarantee.
Today’s suggestive image of the disciples in the boat, being tossed about by the waves, with Jesus miles away praying on the mountain, has often been seen as an apt image for the Church. In the 3rd century, the Roman martyr Hippolytus (whose commemoration comes up later this week) described the Church as a boat in a storm being tossed about by the waves of the world. Not much has changed! That still seems a very apt image for a Church forever struggling to hold its own amid the many stresses and dangers the world throws up at it, a world where even ordinary storms can pose serious challenges. And this, to repeat Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, “is no ordinary time,” and the pandemic is no ordinary storm!
If we remember back about 4½ months ago, at the end of March Pope Francis celebrated what was called an “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer” in Saint Peter’s Square, flanked by the famous Crucifix from the Church of San Marcello that had been carried in procession during the plague of 1522 and the familiar image of Mary, Safety of the Roman people. In the pouring rain, the Pope read Mark’s account of of the disciples getting caught in the storm.
Like them, he said, we have been “caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. … Just like those disciples … so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
The ultimate solution to the storm-threatened disciples’ dilemma is Jesus himself, who, as the Pope put it, “saves his disciples from their discouragement.” During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus, in the Gospel which we just heard, came toward them walking on the sea. In the midst of so much turbulence, Jesus stands with us, calmly overcoming the chaos that threatens us, saying again and again: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Matthew’s account, as it often does, focuses on one of those in the boat in particular – Peter, the one Jesus appointed to be the leader of his Church. “Lord, if it is you, Peter says, command me to come to you on the water.” In highlighting Peter’s special status and unique relationship with Jesus, Matthew also shows Peter at his most endearing. Peter always blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, without first prudently considering the costs and benefits. But then, all of a sudden, he loses his focus, forgetting for the moment who has just called him to come, and instead imagines he is relying on himself, thinking the way the world thinks. And, when that happens, then the world starts to win. In his illusion of self-sufficiency, Peter becomes frightened and so starts to sink. Peter’s faith is real, but it is what Jesus calls “little faith,” a fearful faith, a faith that still lets itself get distracted by false ways of being and thinking.
Like Peter, like Elijah in today’s 1st Reading, we are all susceptible to the illusion of self-sufficiency. And so we are constantly caught somewhere between walking in faith and forever sinking in fear. So we are perpetually in need of that outstretched hand, which catches us in spite of all our fears, the hand of the Risen Christ, who has promised to remain in the same boat with us forever.
HOMILY FOR THE 18th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 2, 2020)
10 years ago today, I waved good-bye to my predecessor. Then I got into the parish car, drove to the church, walked into my new office, sat down at my desk, looked around, and wondered out loud, “Now what do I do?” Soon enough, of course, the challenges began to pile up. That very week, I was told there were termites in the church’s wall and the church’s ceiling was in danger of falling down. 10 years later, there are still termites, but we did get a new ceiling. Meanwhile, I began this year replacing a broken boiler, with a global pandemic thrown in for good measure. So much for wondering what to do next!
The pandemic, as the Pontifical Academy for Life has recently reminded us, “has brought desolation to the world.” It “has given us the spectacle of empty streets and ghostly cities, of human proximity wounded, of physical distancing. It has deprived us of the exuberance of embraces, the kindness of hand shakings, the affection of kisses, and turned relations into fearful interactions of strangers, the neutral exchange of faceless individualities shrouded in the anonymity of protective gears.”
And yet, what will separate us, Saint Paul dramatically asks, from God’s love for us as revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord? His answer is that nothing will! Not termites, sinking ceilings, broken boilers, and annual operating deficits – not even, presumably, a global pandemic, or any of the other serious problems Paul confronted, anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword.
Paul’s point was obviously not that those things are no longer real or that they don’t still threaten us, but that God’s power is greater than the forces that dominate our world – and so can overcome all the worries we struggle with in ordinary life, worries which, if we let them, will become obstacles that threaten to separate us from God and the salvation his love intends for us.
Nor does Paul confine his concern to impersonal forces. Like most people for most of human history, he experienced his world as affected by the presence of powerful beings, demonic beings, who make this world a very dangerous place.
In Paul’s time – as again in our own increasingly re-paganized society – desperate people turned to falsehoods like astrology in order to cope with the threats from present things and future things. Of course, who needs demons to worry about, when we are surrounded by unseen viruses! But then we have historically invented and reinvented many such demons to fulfil our fantasies – the demons of illusionary independence, national exceptionalism, and individual self-sufficiency – the falseness of which this pandemic has once again demonstrated.
Paul’s conviction, which he hopes has become ours as well, is that God’s power is greater than that of any force that might seem to separate us from God’s love.
The point is that, if we really believe in God’s omnipotence and in his love for us as revealed in Jesus, then we will react differently to the stresses and challenges we might otherwise be beaten down by. But we have to believe in both God’s omnipotence and his love. A God who was not all-powerful would be of at best limited value for us in this threatening and dangerous world. An all-powerful God who didn’t also love us, however, would only add to our sense of danger. That was precisely the problem with the pagan religions the Gospel was liberating so many of Paul’s contemporaries from. No wonder scared, terrified pagans – both ancient and modern – have consulted astrologers! Can you blame them?
If God had not revealed himself – and his love for us – as he has done in his Son Jesus, we too would be equally desperate, clutching at any illusion – any demon or demagogue – that promised to fix things in our favor.
God, however, has revealed his love for us – not as an abstraction, but as a person, Christ Jesus our Lord, whose heart is moved with pity for us and satisfies us with food we could never buy on our own.
There will always be an insurmountable gap between our meager human resources – our 5 little loaves and 2 fish – and what God can accomplish on our behalf. Once we are willing to put ourselves at his disposal, however, God’s great love for us, present and active among us in Christ Jesus our Lord, will transform us by his blessing and enable us to accomplish, on his behalf, what we could never ever have imagined doing on our own.
And so the same Christ who feeds us whenever we assemble in his presence also commands us – in the solidarity which unites us as his disciples and as his Church – to join him wholeheartedly in feeding the world with the bread we receive and share when we recognize and perpetuate his presence in our world.
HOMILY FOR THE 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (July 26, 2020)
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sell all he has and buys the field.
It may be one of the most fought over pieces of real estate in the world; but, as anyone who has ever been there can attest, much of Israel is arid desert – basically a bunch of rocks. Working such land is hard and exhausting work. So it’s easy to imagine the surprise, excitement, and joy of someone who, having turned over hundreds of rocks, suddenly sees something completely unexpected, something with the potential of transforming his life for the better!
Perhaps, we are supposed to see ourselves in these parables. Like the field hand and the pearl merchant, we too have hopefully found in God’s grace something we neither earned nor could have expected. Like them, we have the opportunity to take advantage of the gift – buying the field or the pearl – in other words, responding fully to the opportunity, recognizing that it is an all-or-nothing decision on our part. In life one either takes advantage of an opportunity, or one misses the opportunity.
That is how we might unpack these particular parables in normal times. But, to use Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, “this is no ordinary time.” Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has taken over our world, has transformed the landscape of our ordinary lives in all sorts of ways, has highlighted the fragility of life on this planet, has undermined our personal sense of security, and so left us without a lot of the things we used to treasure and wondering what we may have left for us to treasure. Like the fishermen in the parable, whose net has pulled in all sorts of stuff, we too may find ourselves forced to unload a lot, maybe most of what we might otherwise have valued, lest we ourselves get caught in the net and strangled by false securities.
How right Solomon was to ask God for the gifts of wisdom and understanding. Would that more world leaders were like Solomon in knowing what they lack and what they need – and what their people need from them!
In such a terrible time as this that we are now living through, perhaps we might reimagine these parables from God’s point of view, so to speak, and see ourselves as the treasure God has found for himself in the midst of the ordinary life of the world, and for which he has invested his most precious possession, his Son, Jesus, in order that we might be treasured by him forever.
Of course, a treasure found in a field or carefully extracted from a net probably requires careful care and cleaning. But a God who is willing to get involved in our world from the inside – by becoming one of us and living our life in our world – is not going to shrink from the added work of nurturing and perfecting his treasure in his people.
God has always been busily involved in our messy, mixed-up, dangerously unpredictable world. The work God has begun in us, that same work continues in our daily life as his people, his Church, where the messy, mixed-up, and dangerously unpredictable in us is attended to, so that – as Saint Paul said – we in turn may be called, justified, and glorified.
On the one hand, this pandemic moment makes us shed the illusory security of false treasures. On the other, it challenges us to treasure ourselves and one another as God does, deploying God’s gifts of wisdom and scientific knowledge to understand our situation and so bond with all our brothers and sisters to heal our broken world.
HOMILY FOR THE 15th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (July 12, 2020)
A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing that familiar opening line to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!
Having lived virtually all my life in cities, parables about famers sowing seed sound somewhat exotic to me – and, maybe even somewhat strange. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ actual hearers – the original audience for this parable – would have understood. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farmer-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been be very difficult – and inefficient. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean a lot will be wasted, but it probably guarantees that some will fall on good soil and take root and produce fruit. So what may seem like inefficiency to us turns out to be really quite efficient indeed!
Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and how he expects his Church to behave in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.
We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it, if in fact all we do is talk. We honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who travelled to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from France to Canada like Saints John de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.
But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute at present a somewhat shrinking 20 percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”
Well before the pandemic took over our lives, Sunday Mass attendance was declining dramatically. And, since 2000, Catholic marriage rates are down almost 50%, infant baptisms are down 40% percent, and adult baptisms more than 50%.
So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.
As American Catholics we need to examine our consciences concerning the ways we have allowed the good news to be heard as bad news by so many in our society. Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.
As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true, permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”
HOMILY FOR THE 14th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (July 5, 2020)
It has been said that there are two truly American holidays. Thanksgiving Day (in late autumn) looks inward to the heart and soul of America, and so is celebrated at home, at table, among family and friends. Independence Day (in summer) looks outward to the world of nations and states, and so is celebrated (as John Adams said it should be) “by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
Well, maybe not this year, a year conspicuously lacking in a lot of those things, those social activities Adams – and many of us – just took for granted until a few months ago. Even our gathering for Mass today takes place under unusual circumstances, which reflect the reality and the ongoing virulence of this pandemic, and its multiple effects on our spiritual and religious experience as well as on our social existence as citizens. Meanwhile, especially in the last several weeks, our awareness of the pandemic’s different impacts on different groups and of other past and present unjust social circumstances have increasingly forced us to face up to the moral dilemmas and unfinished business of our often painful national history. Not for the first time – and probably not the last – all Americans are being challenged to come to terms with our problematic past and its poisonous effects on our present, so as to be better able to face our future united in a common life with a common purpose.
It is always challenging to reexamine our history – just as challenging as it is to reconsider our own personal stories. We are all always more comfortable with whatever versions of our national and personal stories we have gotten used to telling ourselves. But however awkward, it is a perennial challenge to be faced – all the more so when we really take seriously our citizenship in the kingdom of God and how the additional demands of God’s kingdom demystify all our other commitments, all our earthly loyalties, all our ethnic and national histories, all our personal and racial stories.
As Pope Saint Paul VI once said, “Jesus Christ is … Lord of the new universe, the great hidden key to human history and the part we play in it.” [Homily, Manila, 1970]
Indeed, Saint Paul, in our second reading today from his letter to the early Christian community in Rome, at that time the imperial capital of the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever then known, reminds us that, even while we remain thoroughly engaged in the otherwise ordinary-seeming life of our world, we are simultaneously living a new life, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s idea is that Christ’s new life has become our new life too, thereby reversing the death-ward direction of our ordinary existence and empowering us to allow ourselves and our entire lives – public and private – to be re-shaped by the Gospel’s stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.
As Catholics, of course, we have a long history (going back to Roman times) of thinking seriously about how to relate our faith to civil society – a long tradition of practical wisdom which we need to take seriously both as disciples and as citizens.
What resources does our faith offer to help us heal our civic life this Independence Day? What lessons have we learned from the past, and what can we do together – now – both to promote the common good of our country and to care for our common home this planet earth?
HOMILY FOR THE 13th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (June 28, 2020)
Had it not been for the pandemic, this would have been my last Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception. But then came COVID-19, and as a result I am still here – for another 6 months anyway.
Coming and going is, sadly, an occupational hazard of priestly life, particularly in religious communities. It is a hazard because, generally speaking, people are healthier and happier the more stable and less disrupted their lives are. Jesus was obviously a disruptor, intentionally so. Even so, he certainly understood that he was asking a lot of his apostles. Having himself as a child been a political refugee from Herod’s terror, Jesus would have directly experienced the stress of leaving home and facing an uncertain welcome elsewhere. So he softened his challenging call to embrace instability and disruption a bit by putting in a plug for hospitality. Whoever receives you receives me. … And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward [Matthew 10:37-42].
Jesus’ words reflected the high value in which hospitality and welcoming were held in his society, something also illustrated in our reading from the Book of Kings [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a]. The Shunemite woman gave Elisha more than a cup of cold water. She gave him dinner and a room! In this, she foreshadowed the generous women in the Gospels, like Martha and Mary, who offered hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, welcoming them into their home, serving ever since as models for the high spiritual value the Church has placed on reaching out and welcoming down through the centuries right up to our own time.
Inspired by Jesus’ own words in his parable about the Last Judgment, “I was a stranger and your welcomed me,” Saint Benedict’s Rule for monks famously prescribes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. Nor have hospitality and welcoming been confined to monasteries. When 17-year old Annie Moore crossed the threshold of the New World as the first immigrant to pass through the new Ellis Island immigration Facility on January 1, 1892, she was welcomed by, among others, Father Callahan of the Mission of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, who blessed her and gave her a silver coin, a symbolic expression of hospitality and welcome. Annie Moore’s story – along with the stories of so many others, among them my own grandparents and the parents and grandparents of so many of us assembled here today – ought especially to impress themselves on our consciousness, both as Catholics and as Americans. For we have always been a Church of migrants and strangers, in more ways than one. Migrants, strangers, and other marginalized communities have always been the face of our Church in this country – in our parishes and in our schools and in our other social ministries.
But, as we assemble today, as we do every Sunday, to profess our faith as migrants and strangers passing through this world en route to our final homeland, we have been forcefully reminded especially during this past month of our country’s complicated history, and of our many failures as a country, as a Church, and as individuals – what the US bishops already 20 years ago described as “failures of understanding and sinful patterns of chauvinism, prejudice, and discrimination that deny the unity of the human family, of which the one baptism is our enduring sign.” [Welcoming The Stranger Among Us: Unity In Diversity, USCCB, 2000]
As fallen and sinful human beings, we will always inevitably fall short of Jesus’ challenge to a new way of living, to a new way of being human together. But by baptism into Christ, we are no longer permitted to be strangers to one another, for we have been brought beyond the ordinary human limitations of family and race, and raised instead with Christ to live in newness of life, responding to one another and welcoming one another as we would never otherwise have known how to do or dared to have tried.
As Pope Francis said when he spoke to Congress in 2015: “if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us give opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
HOMILY FOR CORPUS CHRISTI (June 14, 2020)
A week ago, we celebrated First Holy Communion for 11 of our younger parishioners. It reminded me of my own First Communion, 65 years earlier. When I posted my First Communion picture on my blog 10 days ago, my sister, who has been sorting out our mother’s things, an accumulation of decades and decades of memories, told me she had found my First Communion armband and would save it for me. What does one do with a 65-year old First Communion armband?
Most of us can remember our First Communion. Hopefully we remember more than the fancy outfits, photos, and presents. Hopefully, we remember it as a special moment of joy and grace that has been repeated over and over again, every time we have received this sacrament. Presumably we have done that many times, since we have all lived in this relatively unique period in the Church’s history when frequent Communion has been both encouraged and the common experience of most of us – at least until our recent experience of the sudden suspension of so much of the Church’s public sacramental life because of the pandemic that continues to threaten us. That unwanted and unexpected experience should invite us to reflect more seriously on what may have been in danger of becoming at times a relatively routine activity.
But however frequently or infrequently received, Holy Communion can never be allowed to become routine, for, as we just heard from Saint Paul, the bread that we break is a participation in the body of Christ, thanks to which, we though many, are one body.
But what does it mean to be “one body”? Preaching on Pentecost Sunday to another group of First communicants in early 5th-century North Africa, Saint Augustine famously told them to listen to Saint Paul if they want to understand being the Body of Christ. He told them what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. … So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true. [Sermon 272]
The New Testament tells us how, from the beginning, Christian communities devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers [Acts 2:42]. As the Church grew in size and expanded in influence, the Church’s experience of sharing in the one body of Christ, would in time transform, first, the Roman Empire and, then, the ever wider world – as it still must continue to transform each one of us and the wider world which we are all a part of.
The current crisis which we are experiencing in our country, the consequence of a long legacy of injustice and institutionalized violence, mixed in for good measure with a global pandemic, has reminded us how we are all part of the common sufferings of our society, sharing common responsibilities to one another and to our one world.
When Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their sharing in the body of Christ, much of what he had to say was in fact a criticism, warning them that they were in danger of missing the main point and receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy way, doing so to their peril.
Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing their worldly divisions and inequalities with them – any more than we can. That is why what happens at this altar is so important, intended as it is to enable us to go beyond our individual self-enclosed limits and self-referential relationships and so bring a new unity to the world. For Jesus’ command to his disciples to do as he did is an invitation to a whole new way of life, made possible for us by what Jesus himself has already done on our behalf.
Today’s celebration invites us to focus in a particularly active and conscious way on the purpose of Christ’s presence in this sacrament, this sacrament of our unity, this sacrament which makes the Church what it is in our world. This annual festival invites us to a fuller, more conscious, and more active participation in the body of Christ, the Church, by believing firmly, celebrating devoutly, and living intensely Christ’s real bodily presence given to us for the life of the world.
HOMILY FOR TRINITY SUNDAY (June 7, 2020)
According to a famous legend, Saint Patrick is said to have used a shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Trinity when evangelizing Ireland in the 5th century. The fact that Patrick had to resort to using a shamrock illustrates the challenge of talking about the Trinity.
Created in the image and likeness of God, we all have a built-in natural longing for God. So we can theorize about God’s existence by our ordinary natural reasoning process. But who God is – in himself – that is something we cannot possibly know on our own. That had to be revealed to us. So the doctrine of the Trinity is our fundamental – and uniquely Christian – insight into who God is.
On the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveals the mutual love of Father and Son. At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself. Who God is in himself is how God acts. And so how God acts reveals who God is.
Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as he did to Moses in today’s 1st reading, as one who reveals himself in how he acts toward us: a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity. It was to such a God that Moses prayed – as we all pray – do come along in our company … and receive us as your own.
It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who, as the visible image of the invisible God, came down from heaven, so that the world might be saved through him. Risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, the Son has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church, so that we can become the people Saint Paul instructs us to be: Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.
This is what our external sharing in God’s inner life involves. Just as God’s inner life is itself a unique kind of community, so too our life as church is a unique community in unity, a distinctive way of live, a new way of being human together.
As we survey the sad wreckage of our society and the long legacy of damage individualism has done to our ability to live as humans together in God’s company, we recognize all the more urgently how uniquely demanding and uniquely necessary is our full participation in the life of the Trinity through this new way of being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have revealed to us and called us to share in.
As the 4th century Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, famously wrote in one of his letters: “When we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit himself.”
Hence, the Church faithfully follows Saint Paul in praying: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!
HOMILY FOR PENTECOST SUNDAY (May 31, 2020)
I was glad when they said to me: We will go to the house of the Lord. The musicians here may recognize those opening words of Psalm 122 as the beginning of Sir Hubert Parry’s great British coronation anthem.
This is no coronation, of course. But we are rejoicing today! Most of us haven’t been here, at least not for Mass, in more than two months. So we are glad, all of us, to be back again in the house of the Lord! It is great to be back in church again, and I am thrilled to see so many of you again here today! Gathering here around the altar is at the heart of how we express who we are and become who we hope to be.
But, of course, the point of coming to church is that this then continues outside -in who we are and who we become, the Church we are and become, in and for the sake of the wider world. That is the point of Pentecost, the challenge of Pentecost, which we are celebrating in a special way this year not just by getting together again but by welcoming new members into the Church.
“Pentecost” is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day after Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the “week” of seven weeks that began with Passover. It originated as a kind of thanksgiving festival for the late spring, early summer harvest. It was to celebrate this festival that devout Jews from every nation under heaven came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, in the familiar Pentecost story in the Acts of the Apostles.
By then, Pentecost had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 commandments, which (according to Exodus) had happened just about seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the covenant at Mount Sinai fulfilled the promise of Israelite nationhood of which the exodus had been but the beginning.
Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from fearful followers of a now absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses empowered to transform the whole world.
Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time, the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when we reflect the resurrection’s promise in our ordinary lives. Gathered here, we worship the Risen Lord, seated at his Father’s right hand. From here, we continue Christ’s work in the world.
And there remains much work to be done. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit symbolically repaired the division of the human race, when strangers from every nation heard the apostles speaking in their own tongue. Even so, still today, as Pope Francis has reminded us, “fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other,” someone different from ourselves, and so deprives us “of an opportunity to encounter the Lord” [Homily, World Day of Migrants and Refugees, January 14, 2018]. We have all struggled these past months – and will continue to struggle for some time yet (as our seating arrangement reminds us) – with how fear (in this case the very sensible fear of a disease) can distance us – and, if we let it do so, separate us completely from one another. All this therapeutic distancing has also thrown a bright – but sad – light on the deeper distances that so dramatically divide our society and so set us apart when we most need to come together as one.
Hence the Risen Lord’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church. Back when many of us were preparing for Confirmation, we memorized the gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. We call them gifts, because we don’t produce them on our own. They are given to us – to transform us into true children of God and to enable us to live in a new way. The results of that transformation, the visible effects we experience of the Holy Spirit active in our lives are what we call the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We memorized them too – charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.
That’s how the promise of the resurrection is fulfilled and expresses its effect in our ordinary lives. Pentecost ritualizes annually what happens weekly with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, filled with the Holy Spirit, to renew the face of the earth, as the Risen Christ’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.
HOMILY FOR THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD (May 24, 2020)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.”
Our belief in the Ascension is, of course, one of the key components of the Creed, which we recite regularly – if maybe at times a bit absent-mindedly – all year long. After professing our faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we add: he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
As the words of the Creed suggest, the ascension actually involves several things. Historically speaking, it has to do with the fact that the Risen Christ was no longer living among his disciples as he had been before. The Risen Lord lives already the new life of the future of which his resurrection is a foretaste for us. The New Testament authors assure us that the Risen One presented himself alive to his disciples, appearing to them and speaking about the kingdom of God. After a certain period, those appearances ended. It was time to move on to the next stage in salvation history – our time, the time of the Church. Historically, therefore, the Ascension refers to the end of the period of the Risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples.
That being the case, the question then becomes: well, where exactly is he? Again, the Creed contains the answer: he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Of course, as Son of God, the Divine Word, has always been with the Father. Theologically speaking, what the Ascension celebrates is that the Word-made-flesh, the incarnate Christ is now with God his Father, the fact that his human body (and thus our shared human nature) that is with God.
In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, pilgrims get to see a footprint-like depression in the rock, which purports to be the exact spot from which the Risen Lord ascended to heaven. The footprint may well be fanciful, but it does highlight the point that it was Jesus’ human body (and thus our shared human nature) that ascended and so is now with God.
As St. Augustine famously said in one of his sermons: “Although he descended without a body, he ascended with a body and with us, who are destined to ascend, not by reason of our own virtue but on account of our oneness with him” (Sermon 263).
Thus, the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. In the words of the liturgy: where he has gone, we hope to follow.
In the meantime now – in this interim between Easter and the end – though he is absent, he has promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.
Hence, his instruction to his disciples: to wait for the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father. This Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being absent, is still present among us by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church and its sacraments. Hence the intense focus of this final part of the Easter season on his parting gift of the Holy Spirit to us in his church. Meanwhile, not only does the Risen Christ continue present in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit; but, through the sacraments and in particular the Eucharist, we participate already even now in the heavenly liturgy, where Christ, as our High Priest intercedes forever on our behalf with his Father.
Our confidence in his heavenly intercession a simultaneously continuing presence among us in his Church should encourage us as we make our way through our daily difficulties and the seemingly overwhelming crises and calamities the world keeps throwing at us.
MEMORIAL DAY MASS FOR THOSE BURIED AT CALVARY CEMETERY (May 23, 2020)
Many of us may be old enough to remember the original name for Memorial Day – Decoration Day. It began as a day to honor the dead from the Civil War by decorating their graves. Eventually, it became a day to honor the graves of all veterans, but for a long time the emphasis remained on visiting and honoring their graves. My own generation grew up in the aftermath of World War II, and visiting the cemetery on or near Memorial Day was part of that war legacy. Even today, volunteers still visit cemeteries to place flags on graves – a reminder of the importance of the special places of memory we call cemeteries.
So we celebrate this annual Mass today for all the dead buried in our own parish cemetery, established by Knoxville’s first Catholic community, committed and devoted to doing their Christian duty to faithful departed. That we do so here in an almost empty church rather than at the cemetery as we usually do speaks to our present predicament in this time of pandemic, which has made it difficult if not impossible for many of us to gather at all and has been especially hard on those who are mourning their beloved dead without the usual rituals of wake services, funeral Masses, and burial rites. All the more reason, then, to reflect upon the importance of those rituals and the realities that underlie them
In Italian, the word for cemetery is campo santo – literally, “holy field,” or, as we would say in ordinary English, “holy ground.” Cemeteries are special places for us – special not just because they are blessed by the Church and marked by beautiful monuments. They are special places because they is where we remember those who have died, who have gone before us in life, our cherished past to whom we owe our present. Remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives – and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. So, even when we cannot gather as we would wish, to remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life – and the hope which we still share with them after death.
MEMORIAL MASS FOR CAMILLE FRANCO (May 21, 1922-March 5, 2020)
Abraham Lincoln famously said: “in the end, it is not the years in a life, but the life in the years.”
My mother was blessed with both. She outlived her siblings and in-laws, surpassing the psalmist’s famous saying: “The sum of our years is 70, and if we are strong 80, and most of them are toil and trouble, for they quickly pass, and we vanish.” We are so used to people getting old now that we forget that until recently people did not automatically expect to reach such an old age. My mother’s generation generally did not begin life expecting to live as long as so many of them did. Certainly my mother didn’t, having been assured as a somewhat sickly child that she might not make it to 16. Well, one thing we all know is we don’t know the future!
A person’s tombstone may be fancy or plain, but it always features a name and two dates – the deceased’s date of birth and date of death, separated sometimes by a little dash. More important than the years, however, as Lincoln reminded us so tellingly is the life lived over the course of those years. It is that life – lived in the dash between the dates – that imparts purpose to all that “toil and trouble” and continues to have meaning even after “we vanish.” Above all, it is in the life one lives that one becomes the person one will forever be in eternity.
As the only American-born child in a family of Italian immigrants, she inherited the heritage of the old world, reinforced by a brief but memorable sojourn as a child in the kingdom of Italy in the 1920s, while being firmly rooted in the promise of opportunity which had enticed her parents, her husband-to-be’s parents, and so many people’s parents to uproot themselves, like Abraham of old, and to put down new roots in a land of promise.
From her 20s through her 50s home was New York’s borough of the Bronx – often with typical New York hyperbole referred to then as the “Beautiful Bronx.” And beautiful it was – from the natural beauty of Pelham Bay Park and Orchard Beach, where as a young family we spent so much of our time in the summer, westward along the great commercial artery that was Fordham Road, where she did so much household shopping, to our typically pre-war apartment building, where we lived, and the great gothic parish church across the street, that set so much of the tone for that life.
But, before the Bronx, there was Macy’s! My parents were both employed by Macy’s in 1946 when they met there at the first big soap sale after the war. For my father, it was love at first sight. Soon he was taking my mother on their first date – to the Radio City Christmas Show. While they waited in line, my father serenaded my mother, singing the then popular song “All the Things You Are.” They were engaged before Christmas, and married two months later. And, as Macy’s employees, my parents sat under the lights for what seemed to them like forever as part of the background crowd for the cafeteria scene in the famous 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street. Who knows how many miracles of love Macy’s made!
From a distance, we look back on that life we shared with her and all the people that were a part of it, so many of whom are themselves gone now. It was not always easy. It was a struggle, she used to say, just to make ends meet. My father held two jobs, and my mother continued to work part-time in Macy’s. Both he and my mother were “Saturday only” Macy’s employees, which did indeed mean that they worked all day on Saturdays but inexplicably also meant that they worked Monday and Thursday evenings! Those were long, hard days not getting home until almost 10:00 p.m. Since my mother had the same Macy’s hours, they could at least commute home together on the subway those late nights and back and forth on Saturdays.
I often think back to how much my parents had to work. And so I think it a special blessing that she got to enjoy as many years as she did – first, together with my father in the home they finally owned in Westchester and then after my father’s illness and death a whole new life for my mother in California. It was a difficult and challenging decision at her age – 82 – to move across country. But how happy she was there, being near Linda and Nick and Claire and Laura. And all the friends she made there, so many friends, whom she treasured.
At my parents’ wedding, the priest would have instructed them about the life they were committing themselves to, in these once familiar words “That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes.” No longer hidden but fully lived, all those hopes, disappointments, successes, failures, pleasures, pains, joys, and sorrows accompany her now to the throne of the living God and his all-purifying grace and mercy.
We all struggle in life with the contradiction between who we are now and who God created us to become – until united with him in his kingdom we can finally see all things from God’s point of view and so experience the full effect of God’s patient, life-long transformation of us by his grace.
For my mother, that process began in a parish church in New York’s Little Italy where she was baptized and first brought into relationship with the One who is the resurrection and the life, a relationship that he has continued to develop with her for almost a century now, flourishing in these final years in Walnut Creek’s Rossmoor community and Saint Anne’s, Parish, which my mother cherished so much.
In their earthly lives, Martha and Mary and Lazarus had all responded to Jesus’ invitation by committing to him as to their own family. That invitation was extended to my mother at her baptism, as it has been to each of us, an invitation that makes everything different from what it might otherwise have been, and that, having blessed my mother’s life, now imparts new meaning to her death as, with confident hope and trust in God’s promises, we commend her to share forever in the new life of the Risen Christ.
HOMILY FOR THE 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER (May 17, 2020)
It’s really not too far from Jerusalem to the city of Samaria to which the Deacon Philip traveled in today’s 1st reading. The Samaritans were, so to speak, the Jews’ next-door neighbors. Neighbors, however, don’t always get along, as we all know. The Samaritans were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews, but over the centuries, thanks to a complicated history, they had acquired a separate identity, worshiping the same God but in a different place and in a different way. The result was two groups, whose differences from one another came to matter more than what they had in common, causing them to regard each other with suspicion and hostility. (Being suspicious of and hostile to other people who are different in some way seems to be typically human behavior – now as then.)
Yet, surprisingly, none of that seems to have stopped Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to the Samaritans. Nor did it prevent the Samaritans from paying attention to what was said by Philip. The result was great joy in that city and yet another leap on the Church’s part, another experience of expansion, growth, and diversity (in keeping with the whole trajectory of the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles which, can be summarized as: Good News travels fast. Good News travels far. Good news builds the Church and heals the world.)
Even so, what Philip was doing and had done inevitably raised some serious questions back in Jerusalem. So Peter and John went to Samaria to see for themselves what was happening and to interpret what it all meant. Surrounded by Samaritans, strangers whom they would until then have probably preferred to avoid, Peter and John recognized God’s grace at work in in this unexpected way in that unexpected place, and so they laid their hands on the newly believing Samaritans, and they, in turn, received the Holy Spirit. There is only one Holy Spirit. So, if the Samaritans were going to become believers like them, then they had to be connected by that one Holy Spirit with the rest of the Church led by the apostles.
Luke’s point in telling this story seems to be to stress the importance of the unity and universality of the Church, specifically its apostolic leadership, which links us with the Risen Christ, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Church continues Christ’s presence and action in our world.
The apostles may well have been surprised initially, both by Philip’s initiative and by the Samaritans’ response. Surprised or not, they saw in what was happening the direction they were intended to go. Acts constantly presents the Church as learning from experience, confident that, thanks to the Risen Christ’s continued presence in the Church through his Holy Spirit, what happens in the world really is significant.
Faith does not eradicate the many and various differences that exist among people, but it does create a completely new relationship for all of us with God and with one another – in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Peter, John, and Philip all learned this from their actual experience of how God was acting, drawing different people and peoples together in a completely new kind of community that overcomes the ordinary divisions of our ordinary world.
Likewise, faith alone does not resolve all the problems we will experience even in our new life together as Christ’s Church. It does, however, give us confidence in the Risen Lord’s presence among us in the structures of his Church, and in the power of the word of God, which continues to be proclaimed in the Church, to create a unity which can resolve those conflicts and so transcend our human divisions and limitations.
HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER (May 10, 2020)
On the night before he died, Jesus tried to console his disciples with the now familiar image of his Father’s house’s many dwelling places. Apparently, his disciples felt the need for even more reassurance “Master,” the Apostle Philip said to Jesus in the Gospel we just heard [John 14:1-12], “show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Now, most of us were brought up to be properly respectful to our teachers. So we instinctively peg Philip as a bit bold. Jesus’ response would seem to confirm our instinctive sense that what Philip was asking was really rather over-the-top. “Have I been with you for so long,” Jesus said to Philip, “and you still do not know me?”
On the other hand, if we’re really honest, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we all want a direct line to God? Especially at a time like this, surrounded by so much sickness and death, don’t we all want at least some tangible sign from God – some tangible signs that God cares about us and acts in our best interest?
So how did Jesus answer? “Whoever has seen me,” he said to Philip, has seen the Father.” Jesus is saying the he himself is our direct line to God, and that we experience God’s presence and activity in our lives most fully and effectively in our experience of Jesus.
There is an added irony in this Gospel story. A few days earlier, some Greeks had asked to see Jesus, and Philip had served as their liaison, their conduit, to Jesus [John 12:21-22]. Already, without knowing it, Philip was evangelizing. Often, in fact, we may be bringing others closer to God without fully knowing that we’re doing it!
Now the normal way we meet Jesus – and also the normal way we share him with others – is in the Church, where we do so not as isolated individuals, but as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own,” as Saint Peter proclaimed in today’s 2nd reading [1 Peter 2:4-9], quoting God’s words at Mount Sinai to the people of Israel [Exodus 19:5-6]. What God told Israel and (according to Peter) applies now to the Church is to be the liaison, the conduit, between God and the world, which we are because, like Philip, we too experience Jesus, the Risen Christ, living among us, always present in his Church.
What God told Israel and applies now to the Church is to be the link between God and the world, which we are because, like Philip, we too experience Jesus, the Risen Christ, living among us, always present in our spiritual house, his Church.
As our unique and indispensable connection with Christ, the Church continues Christ’s mission in us and in our world, proclaiming the uniqueness and centrality of Christ for all the people of the world, thereby echoing Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.”
It was precisely the apostles’ confidence in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence – as Lord – in his Church, that enabled them to take the bold step we just heard described in today’s 1st reading, from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 6:1-7]. – a forerunner of further and even bolder steps the Apostles would courageously take to put power into their words.
If nothing else, this episode and others like it remind us yet again of the perennial problem of factional conflict, of cultural and ethnic divisiveness, and of ideological division and polarization, that characterize our world and can so easily undermine the unity and universality even of the Church and thus get in the way of its mission – not just in 1st-century Jerusalem but in every time and place. Then as now, aspects of life within the Church community can sometimes seem simply to replicate the conflicts and divisions that themselves seem to define our secular society – so much so that it is said that Americans increasingly choose their church affiliation or their local parish on the basis of their politics!
But there was more to the story of the apostolic Church than out-of-control factional conflict. After all, the Jerusalem Church didn’t split into separate sects. Instead of a threat to their unity, this episode shows us how – trusting in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence as Lord in his Church – the apostles responded to the challenge they faced with creative confidence. They saw how the challenge they were faced with could become an opportunity instead of a threat.
In 1851, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, wrote to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”
Today, faced with a terrifying global pandemic and divisive conflicts, even within the Church itself, about how to respond to this challenge, we are being called upon to show once more that “true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds,” which is what it will take for us to continue to be that powerful link that Christ intended his Church to be to all types of people – a Church as alert as were the apostles to the challenges and equally as ready to respond to the opportunities.
HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER (May 3, 2020)
To repeat the same news over and over again is one way to highlight its importance. To hear the proclamation of the resurrection, over and over, during these Easter Sundays strengthens our faith by the witness of others’ faith – in particular that of the apostles. That is why one of the most noticeable features that distinguishes Easter from other seasons of our Catholic liturgical calendar is the daily reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Through our journey with the original apostles through the book of Acts, we identify ourselves with that first generation of Christians in their experience of the Risen Christ, becoming like them a community which witnesses to the presence and action of the Risen Lord in his Church, something we very much need to be at this difficult time.
In today’s 1st reading from Peter’s preaching to the people that first Pentecost Sunday [Acts 2:14a, 36-41], Peter wanted his hearers to feel personally impacted by his message – not simply hearing some new bit of information about which one might or might not care, as we all do all the time in our “information age.” According to the Acts of the Apostles, Peter was apparently quite successful. The people, we are told, were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?”
The proclamation of the good news – whether in 1st-century Jerusalem or 21st century Tennessee – ought always to lead to that same invitation to respond with true conversion of heart, in repentance which resolves guilt with forgiveness and the freedom which comes from forgiveness. As Peter told the people, the promise is made to all those … whomever the Lord our God will call. We hear this message repeated, Sunday after Sunday, during this Easter season, as something intended not just for the 1st century, but for every time and place and especially for this very difficult time in which we find ourselves here and now.
HOMILY FOR SAINT JOSEPH THE WORKER (May 1, 2020)
In today’s Gospel [Matthew 13:54-58], Jesus returns to his hometown, where the townspeople, to whom Jesus and his family have long been very familiar – and very ordinary – take offense at him. He was (or so they thought) an ordinary guy, someone like them, a working-class schlepp (as one might say back in New York).
We hear this gospel story today in the context of our current crisis, which has highlighted society’s extreme dependence for our survival on all sorts of ordinary workers, like those who work in grocery stores, for example, workers we ordinarily treat as unimportant compared with rich and powerful people whose work benefits largely only themselves and people like them.
Two and a half centuries ago, Adam Smith, spoke disapprovingly about what he called “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition,” which he called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
How ironic that it is precisely such ordinary, unappreciated “persons of poor and mean condition,” whose social and economic well-being our society has largely neglected for decades, are now seen as “essential workers” – poorer people in low-paying jobs that our wealth-worshipping society habitually disrespects and whom this present pandemic so directly endangers.
When Pope Pius XII invented today’s feast of Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955, he did so in response to the 20th-century labor movement. The social and economic progress made by workers in the 20th-century is now largely a thing of the past. As our current crisis demonstrates, for many (who in an earlier era would have been beneficiaries of the labor movement) things have been getting consistently worse on multiple levels. It’s nice to step out on one’s balcony and applaud essential workers, as many do these days in certain cities. But maybe the moral of this feast is that a lot more is called for, lest we too, like the people in Nazareth, dramatically miss the point of what God is showing us by becoming not just one of us, but an ordinary, unappreciated worker one of us!
HOMILY FOR THE 3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER (April 26, 2020)
When something terrible happens, one response is to try to get away – away from the people, the places, the memories we might otherwise have cherished but which have now become painful. Another common coping mechanism is to want to talk about our troubles. We want others to know just how badly it hurts. I am sure many of us are making more phone calls these days, now that we are all under some stress but can’t go anywhere to get away.
The two disciples in today’s gospel were likewise eager to talk, as well as to get away. They had followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, where the most terrible thing had happened. We all know what that’s like. We hope for something, work hard to get it. Then something goes wrong, and the path is blocked – as so many plans and expectations have now so suddenly been blocked. The two disciples decided to get away as fast as they could – on Sunday, the first day after the Sabbath. For all we know, maybe they had to get back to work! After all the excitement they had had and the enthusiasm they had felt as followers of Jesus, what a let-down it must have been to return to their regular, ordinary work!
(In our very different, stressful situation, many of us might jump at a chance to return to ordinary life and go back to regular work!)
But, however eager they were to get away, Jesus’ memory was still very much with them, and so they couldn’t help talking about him to the stranger who had suddenly joined them. And the stranger let them talk. He listened to their disappointment and disillusionment as they told of the dream that had lifted them up – only to let them down. But then the stranger didn’t just listen. He also had an answer.
Of course, the disciples did not realize who the stranger was. Obviously they were not expecting to see Jesus. He was dead, after all. And dead with him were all their high hopes for Israel’s future. In fact, Jesus would prove to be the one to redeem Israel. But, before they could recognize him, they had to relearn what that meant, what it meant for him to be the Messiah. And who better to teach them than this stranger? So beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.
We have a short version of what Jesus’ homily might have sounded like in Peter’s Pentecost sermon, part of which we just heard in today’s 1st reading. What Jesus did on the road had quickly become the Church’s traditional way of reading the Old Testament, understanding the Old Testament through the lens of the Risen Christ and learning to recognize Christ through the lens of the Old Testament.
In re-interpreting the familiar scriptures, Jesus was refashioning an image they already had – because, rather than see things as they are, usually we see things as we are. The disciples had seen Jesus through their existing image of a messiah. In the secular world, we speak of “confirmation bias” – our tendency to interpret new evidence as confirming our already existing and established beliefs. Now, however, the disciples had lost both Jesus and their image of what he was supposed to be. Without quite comprehending it, they had reached one of those crises in life when everything seems to break down and a change is required. Meanwhile, without yet recognizing him, they were getting him back. And he was giving them a new image to hold onto and have hope in.
And so they urged him to stay. They were beginning to get back their lost hope and didn’t want to lose it again in the night’s darkness. Then, once inside, the stranger revealed himself with a familiar gesture, which has since become the Church’s trademark. But this time they didn’t lose hope when he disappeared because he wasn’t gone. The darkness was. He had been with them on the road, a companion in their grief. He had been with them in his homily on the scriptures. And he was with them for keeps in the breaking of bread. So now they couldn’t wait to get back to Jerusalem, that place of pain they had earlier been so eager to leave.
And there they heard, “The Lord has appeared to Simon.” Simon Peter, their leader, would proclaim Christ’s resurrection for the rest of his life, beginning with the Pentecost sermon we just heard. And so would those two ordinary disciples, ordinary people like us.
And how is the Risen Lord here today for people like us? The same way he was with them – in the world we live in, in the people around us in whom we too frequently fail to recognize him (and whom we may fail to recognize at all). Our preoccupation with ourselves and our problems may hinder us from recognizing him. Still, he walks with us in our disappointments, hears and feels our frustrations, and keeps stride with us as we struggle to hope. He explains himself in the scriptures, stays with us in the breaking of bread, and then he sends us, to announce to the world, in union with Peter and the rest of the Church, that our hope is not just a wish and is more than merely a memory, and that in spite of everything, The Lord has truly been raised – and lives with us still.
HOMILY FOR THE 2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER (April 19, 2020)
It seems like a small detail, one we might overlook in an ordinary year – the fact that the doors were locked, where the disciples were. The doors were locked, we note, from the inside, out of fear. Well doesn’t that sound so contemporary? Our fears may be different, but we too have been behind locked doors for about a month now. (It seems like a lot longer, doesn’t it?)
Eventually, of course, at Pentecost Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to open those doors, once and for all – to open the doors for the Church to move out into the world. But today, although the doors remain locked, Jesus enters through those doors to come inside, to be with us, where we are confined.
Today’s annually repeated gospel [John 20:19-31] captures the novelty and uniqueness of the resurrection in its account of the disciples’ encounter (actually two encounters) with the Risen Christ, in which the Risen Lord demonstrated to his disciples that he was the same Jesus who had lived and died (hence the wounds in his hands and side), now alive again in a unexpectedly new and wonderful way (hence his presence among them, although the doors were locked.)
Understandably fearful for their safety, the disciples had hidden behind locked doors, much as we have hidden in fear this past month. But at least they were together – perhaps in the same “upper room” where they had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where they would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. If so, how appropriate! Since apostolic times (long before it ever became a day off from work), Sunday, the first day of the week, has been the special day, the irreplaceably privileged day, when Christians assemble in their churches to encounter Christ, the Risen Lord, present through the power of his Holy Spirit in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.
On that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Surely, that was no mere wish on his part! Christ, the Risen Lord brings peace – not some social or political peace that passes as quickly as it comes, but the peace that conquers fear. And isn’t that exactly why we so much want him to come to us through the locked doors of our lives today?
Now the time we have been spending apart has bene necessary – “the right thing to do,” as Queen Elizabeth said on Palm Sunday. Still fear is fear, and it exacts its toll on the fearful, wounding us in all sorts of ways we may hesitate to acknowledge.
Yet, when Jesus came to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side – and the disciples rejoiced. As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal that it is the same Jesus who really and truly died on the cross, who is now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds.
For the resurrection was not just some nice thing that happened to Jesus – and then leaves everything else in the world completely unchanged. It was – and is – the foundation of what the first letter of Peter, from which we just heard [1 Peter 1:3-9], calls an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading future inheritance to which, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we already have access here and now in the present.
Like Thomas, we were not there on that first day of the week, but we are here today, in spirit at least, on this first day of this week. The celebration of Sunday is, as the Catechism says, “at the heart of the Church’s life,” “the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice,” “a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church” – the Church, which professes its faith in the Risen Lord and his new creation, and “so bears, nourishes, and sustains” our faith and the possibility of a whole new way of life, in which, living for ever with the Risen Christ, we will finally become most fully human, freed from all our fears.
HOMILY FOR EASTR SUNDAY (April 12, 2020)
“Such is the wonder of his love; he gathers to this feast those who are far apart and brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other.” So wrote the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church Saint Athanasius in a 4th-century Easter letter. His words seem especially apt today, as we celebrate this Easter feast “physically separated from each other,” in a way none of us would ever have expected.
On Easters past, I have often talked about my love for the sound of the Easter bells that still ring out triumphantly in much of the world today. Some years, I have recalled the famous legend of Faust (the scholar who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil), and how, in Goethe’s dramatic version of the story, the glorious ringing of the Easter bells brought him back from the brink of despair.
Of course, Faust was a unique case. Hopefully none of us is tempted to go down his self-destructive path. Yet, in a different way, some of his sense of abandonment and isolation may well resonate with us in this strange and difficult time which we are going through.
At the beginning of Goethe’s play, the hopeless Faust plans to end his pointless life, when suddenly he hears the sound of the bells heralding what he calls “the Easter feasts’ first solemn hour.” Though Faust’s faith is weak, and his hope is all but gone, even so just the familiar sound of those Easter bells brings him back from the brink of death.
Like Faust, we too have all heard the Easter bells, as year after year they continue to announce their glorious news. I’ve often told how, back in the Bronx in the 1950s, the sound of the Easter bells set in motion an important annual ritual in our apartment. In those days, the Easter Vigil service was still celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning, when hardly anyone was there to hear the bells ring at the Gloria of the Mass. But then, promptly at noon, churches all over the world let loose a cacaphony of bells. At that moment, my grandmother would sit us down at the kitchen table and tune the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the best bells of all – the bells of Rome’s several hundred churches (recorded earlier at noon Rome time) – all peeling gloriously, as we meanwhile cracked open our colored Easter eggs.
Even now, after all these years, the ringing of the bells still remains one of my favorite Easter moments, when the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent for two days, the bells now ring again with all the clamor they can muster in an outburst of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year – and beyond.
After all, how else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must – for everyone’s sake! That is what the Church is for – commissioned to preach to the people and testify (as Peter proclaimed in the reading we just heard from the acts of the Apostles) that Jesus is really risen from the dead and that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.
Now, in the Church, we are not all the same. Some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved in today’s Gospel. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But, whether we are runners or walkers, we too have come, like those first disciples, to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we – and the world – may believe.
Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something new in a world where everything else seems at best ordinary and old, at worst depressing and dangerous. That is why every day for the next seven weeks, the Church retells the story of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles, how they first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world – to change even this world, which seems to have been stopped in its tracks by a dangerous disease that sickens, even kills, some, and has taken a terrible toll on all of us.
The promises of holy Baptism, which we will now solemnly renew, are our solemn and collective commitment to keep ringing those Easter bells, even in this world of sickness and separation.
So may those bells that called Faust back to live again live on in us. May our whole world ring again with Easter joy and hope, so we all can experience that something really new has happened – the new life given freely to us by Christ our Risen Lord.
HOMILY FOR GOOD FRIDAY (April 10, 2020)
One week ago, in his daily morning homily on the traditional date of the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Pope Francis recalled the centuries-old devotion to Mary at the foot of the Cross, a devotion which acquired an added significance in the medieval Church at a time characterized by world-wide suffering and death – in particular that caused by the great plagues that decimated society from the 14th century onward.
In what seems like an eternity ago (although actually little more than a month ago), when we could come together still as a community to walk the Way of the Cross with Mary and with one another, we would contemplate Mary’s encounter with Jesus on his way to his crucifixion and her presence there throughout it all until she helped lay his body in the tomb. And we would sing the familiar 13th-century hymn Stabat Mater, which was originally a Sequence sung at Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
In the gospel account which we have just heard, we contemplate with empathy Mary’s presence at the foot of the Cross and the role she assumed there as Mother of the church. In his Passion, Mary accompanied Jesus as his disciple, modeling that role for us through her unique relationship with him and her role as Mother, sharing in his passion and death on our behalf. Again, it will be as Mother of the Risen Jesus that she will join in prayer with the disciples after Easter. With her, we participate in the experience of Christ’s Cross so as to share together in its benefits in the community of the Risen Christ.
In her suffering and sorrow, Mary exemplifies the Church – suffering and sorrowful in this terrible time of widespread sickness and death and of separation and loneliness.
As the thrust of the soldier’s lance into Jesus’ side certified, Jesus really died on the cross. Then, bound with burial cloths according to the custom, his body was buried – all of which should then have been the end of the story.
And yet this is not some sort of funeral service. If Jesus had in fact remained dead, if his body had indeed decayed in the tomb, then none of us would have any reason to remember this day at all. Nor are we acting in a play, pretending he’s dead until we see what (if anything) happens on Sunday. We are doing this today because he really did die, but really isn’t dead anymore. And that is why we celebrate the cross of Christ.
As St. John Chrysostom expressed it, some 16 centuries ago:
Before, the cross was synonymous with condemnation; now it is an object of honor. Before, a symbol of death; now the means of salvation. It has been the source of countless blessings for us: it has delivered us from error, it has shone on us when we were in darkness. We were vanquished, yet it reconciles us with God. We were foes, yet it has regained God’s friendship for us. We were estranged, yet it has brought us back to him.
In a short while, we will solemnly salute the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world, for each one of us is challenged as a disciple to realign his or her life, to model one’s life, as Mary did, on the mystery of Christ’s cross – despite the difficulties and obstacles life puts in the way. We will venerate the cross, together as the community of Christ’s holy Catholic Church – born on the cross in the blood and water which flowed out from Jesus’ side as a sign of the Church’s sacramental life and mission – because it is together as Christ’s Church (united with Mary, the Mother of the Church) that we continue Christ’s life and mission, effectively extending the reach of his cross into the whole world. That is why, following one of the most ancient traditions of this day, we will pray for that whole world – for the Church, for its leaders, for those joining the Church, for those outside, for our political leaders, for those suffering from this pandemic, and for all in any kind of need – for the whole world without exception.
Passing through life this way, standing by the cross of Jesus, we have been reborn as his Church in his blood and water, through which the Easter promise of salvation will flow, in a torrent, from his side to fill our entire world.
HOMILY FOR HOLY THURSDAY (April 9, 2020)
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again.” That’s the opening line of the famous World War II song, that Queen Elizabeth II was referencing in her televised Speech to the Commonwealth last Sunday, when she said, “We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”
The challenge of separation we face today is obviously different from that of the World War II generation, but it is similarly frightening, simultaneously worldwide and very personal – as is our desire to meet and be together, as is our desire tonight to meet and be together for this Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So begins tonight’s famous reading from Saint Paul’s 1st letter to the Christians in Corinth. Paul’s was the earliest written account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, a farewell meal that took the place of the Passover feast which Jesus would not live to celebrate and in the process replaced it with something completely new.
The New Testament tells us how, from the beginning, Christian communities devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers [Acts 2:42]. As the Church grew in size and expanded in influence, the Church’s worship, centered on the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper, would in time transform, first, the Roman Empire and, then, the ever wider world – as it still must continue to transform each one of us and the wider world we are all a part of.
The current crisis which we are experiencing has reminded us in the most painful possible way how we are all part of that one world. No oceans, no borders, no walls will protect us from the common sufferings of our world, nor excuse us from our common responsibilities to one another and to our one world. Nor must we let our temporary physical distance from one another and from this altar separate us from what we owe to one another and the new community the Lord’s Supper is intended to create among us.
The short passage we just heard, from Saint Paul was originally part of a longer passage that for most of the Church’s history was read at this Mass. Saint Paul wrote that earliest written account of what happened at that most memorable meal in all of human history not just to tell us a nice story about something that happened a long time ago. It was its present effect that Paul cared most about, and so Paul was in fact complaining, criticizing the Corinthians, telling them that they were missing the main point of the Lord’s Supper – receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy way, doing so to their peril. I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, Paul wrote.
What an indictment! Then as now, all was not well in the Church. The social, economic, and class distinctions, the inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions, endemic in secular society were making themselves felt within the Corinthian Church community, so much so that even the celebration of the Lord’s Supper still seemed to mirror those same social, economic, and class distinctions, inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions.
Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the worst of the world with them – any more than we can. That is why what happens at this altar is so important, intended as it is to enable us to go beyond our individual self-enclosed limits and so bring something new to the world. For Jesus’ command to his disciples to do as he did is an invitation to a whole new way of life, made possible for us by what Jesus himself has already done on our behalf.
Back at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel, Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, then, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left the Supper. How many times has Pope Francis warned us about the danger posed by Satan! The Devil, Pope Francis has warned, “poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy, and vice” [Gaudete et Exsultate].
So too, for us now, as for Judas that night so long ago, what happens next is what matters. What have we experienced, what has happened to us that has made us different from how we would be otherwise? What kind of people are we becoming? What kind of people do we want to become? What kind of community do we want to become? What will we take with us from this experience to help heal our conflicted and divided world?
HOMILY FOR PALM SUNDAY – APRIL 5, 2020
Years ago when I was studying in Israel, my former novice director took me to a village in Samaria (on the so-called West Bank) for the 1st Mass of a newly ordained local priest. We found everyone gathered at the village boundary, around an arch of palm branches and balloons, waiting there for the new priest to enter his hometown. As the procession began and all the villagers started shouting and waving palms in the air, my guide said to me: now you see what Palm Sunday looked like!
For centuries, pilgrims have eagerly sought that sense of direct connection with the holy places and the great events that happened there. The presence of Stations of the Cross in every Latin Catholic church testifies to the desire to bring that connection home. And, not unlike the Way of the Cross, historically Holy Week evolved in part as a stretching out of the Easter story over time to experience through celebrating at special times what pilgrims in Israel experience through being present at special places. And so it is that two millennia later we still re-enact Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
But not this year – or, at least, not in the way we are used to. Thankfully, we still sang some of that wonderful 9th-century hymn which Theodulph, the Bishop of Orleans, composed for this very occasion around the year 810. But no procession this year – and, for most of us, no palms.
Even so, we still have the story, and that story still speaks, if anything that much louder for having to speak alone to a world that has gone unnaturally silent.
The Gospel read at the beginning of this Sunday’s Mass recalls Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday and his triumphal entry into the Holy City.
But then the rest of the story, which we have just heard, reveals the next phase of that journey – to the cross and to the tomb.
Recently, we have seen those powerful images of Pope Francis venerating Rome’s famous “Plague Crucifix,” first at its regular home in the Church of San Marcello al Corso and later more publicly at the entrance to Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Christ’s cross stands as the central symbol of Christianity because the cross is precisely where we meet God in our world, just as the tomb – the eventually empty tomb – shows where he is taking us, where we will now watch and wait with Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.
Meeting Christ on the cross we somehow sense a new connection with God that we would hardly have felt otherwise.
Jesus is God’s way of participating in our human world of suffering and death, God’s great act of solidarity with us in our day-to-day suffering and our final mortality.
In his Passion, Jesus confronted, once and for all, the power of evil in the world. Having done so, he invites us this week to accompany him to the cross and to the tomb – because, thanks to the cross of Christ, suffering and death will no longer have the final word in our world.
HOMILY FOR THE 5TH SUNDAY OF LENT – MARCH 29, 2020
A lot of people all over the world are finding themselves more or less stuck at home these days, due to the necessary restrictions imposed on us by the present pandemic. That’s obviously not so bad as being dead for four days as Lazarus was, but many might still wish someone would say to them what Jesus said to Lazarus: “Lazarus come out!”
Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.
The gospel we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. But Jesus’ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead also led to the authorities’ decision to have Jesus executed. So life and death are mixed together in this story – as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death.
Since ancient times, this Gospel has been especially associated with the Lenten experiences of catechumens and penitents preparing to be baptized or reconciled at Easter, a renewal we are all invited to identify ourselves with. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey – and to trust the risen Lord to raise us to beyond whatever confines us at present to a fuller life in his kingdom.
In the Gospel story, the friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first notified him that Lazarus was sick. Strangely, however, he seemed to ignore their message, thus setting the stage for this great miracle, and also for the famous conversation with Martha, which for so many centuries has been read at Catholic funerals.
Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else. We, however, start from the fundamental fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death – and his whole life – in the light of that.
Unlike Jesus, Lazarus came out of the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually). Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. No one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat. Meanwhile, however, in this in-between time which we still live in, bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to come out, and he emerged still confined, bound hand and foot, needing others to untie him.
We are all, in some sense, confined like Lazarus. But we are also called to do like the bystanders and help one another to find our way from the darkness to God’s kingdom, helping one another along the way, untying whatever blocks us.
John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus – and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another – and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.
After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond – one way or the other.
HOMILY FOR THE 4TH SUNDAY OF LENT – MARCH 22, 2020
The Gospel according to John portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles, which John calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel is a truly monumental miracle, for, as the formerly blind man himself testifies, it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. And, just as the blind man receives physical sight, he is also gradually given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” He receives his physical sight through a series of steps in which Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay which he smears on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns able to see. Meanwhile, he gains increasing insight into who Jesus is – a growth in faith which exactly parallels the unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries, who can certainly see but are spiritually blind – obstinately so. Physically the Pharisees could see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.
It’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel account to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life. At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and worship, but also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that still seems to dominate the world, challenging us to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.
Meanwhile, easily overlooked in this wonderful story is a sidebar at the beginning when the disciples speculated about the cause of the man’s blindness. In that pre-scientific age, the disciples wondered whether someone’s sin was to blame – an opinion Jesus explicitly rejected.
We, of course, with the insights of modern science, know the natural causes of disease; but, as our present predicament demonstrates, we may feel just as confused and helpless as our ancestors as we are confronted by a new and dangerous disease. Indeed, because we have expectations that they did not have about our ability to control the natural world and to organize our lives as we wish, we may be even more unsettled than they were, when sickness strikes so unexpectedly as this pandemic has done, suddenly forcing us to stop whatever else we thought we would be doing.
Questions like “why?” are important, of course; but much more important are questions like “what do we do now?” Just as the no-longer-blind man asked Jesus for direction, we too need to ask what we can do in response to this unexpected challenge. Now obviously doctors and healthcare workers and policymakers have particular responsibilities and things they need to do. But, for all of us, there are two things, I think, that we are especially challenged to do.
The first, of course, is to pray. Because we are in danger does not mean God has completely abandoned us, and because we cannot at Mass does not mean we should abandon the new life God has called us to. I don’t know if you saw the pictures of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage last Sunday through the empty streets of Rome, visiting shrines connected with experiences of God’s presence and healing action in past plagues. I found those photos profoundly moving.
The second thing that we are all being challenged to do flows from the first. Just as God does not abandon us, and we must not abandon our relationship with God, so too we must not abandon our relationships with one another. The more we are required to distance ourselves physically from one another, the more we must NOT distance ourselves spiritually. If ever there was a time to reach out to one another by telephone or Facebook or whatever, it is now – especially when so many of our brothers and sisters are alone and may need our help to meet ordinary needs and to allay extraordinary fears. So that even in this terribly frightening time, the works of God may continue to be made visible in our world.